Works (and Cities) in Progress

This piece was first published last April.

In early March, Tom Brokaw picked Reading, Pennsylvania as “emblematic of many struggling cities.” In his short profile, students at Reading High School say they can’t wait to get out of this city. For many years, people in the suburbs and surrounding farmland told me they didn’t want to go in. Reading has been a city to drive around at all costs, and a place to dream of moving away from.

Slowly but vitally, crime rates have declined in Reading and new commerce has sprung up. Revitalization still looms a long way off, and a staggering unemployment rate, homelessness, and poverty hover close. But if Reading really functions as a symbol of other U.S. cities’ struggles, then maybe closely examining one crucial element of what makes people in Reading proud of their community and hopeful about its future will illuminate what can help elsewhere.

The GoggleWorks, the biggest arts center of its kind in the nation, calls Reading home. As a renovated factory building set in the heart of Reading, it sparks hope that the arts can jolt life into the city.

The campus is roomy enough to feel peaceful. Well-lit hallways look into 34 active studios. It’s also busy enough to feel energized.  Seniors, high schoolers, professionals, and elementary kids walk the halls. High school girls chat in Spanish and laugh. Artists help each other haul sculptures into one of the GoggleWorks’s five galleries.

Anyone can tour the galleries for free. Visitors can wander up to the second and third-floor studios to view works completed and works-in-progress and leave notes for artists or talk to them while they work. Community members can take classes at the GoggleWorks, and students can receive need-based scholarships. Several artists, like artists-in-residence and husband and wife Jesse Walp (woodworking) and Bethany Krull (ceramics), have visited city classrooms.  About his recent classroom visit, Walp said he wanted the third-graders to know “…there are other options in life.  There are artistic ways to live.”

Factory exterior prior to renovation; photo courtesy of the GoggleWorks

With such freedom of movement into and out of the GoggleWorks, the community has embraced the GoggleWorks as theirs. Barbara Thun, a GoggleWorks artist who says she wants viewers of her paintings to feel both an experience of beauty and a sense of unease, says, “Already our neighborhood community takes pride in this place.”  Thun, who is also on the GoggleWorks’s board, points to a lack of vandalism around the art center’s six-building campus as evidence that the community feels ownership.

How Does It Start?

So let’s say you live in an economically-gasping city like Reading and believe art fosters collaboration across the many lines that divide people, and you believe that this kind of collaboration infuses life into neglected urban areas.  How do you start a center for the arts in a city like Reading?

The GoggleWorks began when Albert Boscov took a walk.

Boscov visited Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (that’s right, “Christmas City“) during a First Friday event. Boscov happens to be Reading’s best-known businessman; his family started a chain of department stores. As he found himself among thousands who thronged downtown Bethlehem’s streets, he considered how similar Bethlehem’s history was to Reading’s and envisioned Reading infused with this kind of energy.

Second floor space prior to renovation; photo courtesy of the GoggleWorks

Boscov knew the arts had been instrutmental in reeling Bethlehem back from the edge when it lost its industrial base. (Remember Billy Joel’s song “Allentown“?  Remember the line about Bethlehem Steel: “Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time”?) Boscov contacted Diane LaBelle, an architect who had just left her job as director of Bethlehem’s Banana Factory arts and cultural center to ponder what to do next in life. When Boscov approached her with the idea for a Reading-based arts center, it was clear that this was what to do next.

The idea for the GoggleWorks took shape.  The city donated a recently-closed factory that had manufactured safety glasses.  As LaBelle toured its interior, she says, “It was so filled with light… I could see artists working.”

Boscov gathered a small cohort who asked LaBelle for a concept design.  She capitalized on the light that had captivated her and left the factory’s aesthetic intact. Indeed, encountering old boilers, heavy steal doors, and defunct circuit-breaker boxes, GoggleWorks visitors can still imagine themselves spelunking through an old factory.

The whole process, from the day LaBelle first saw the building to the day the GoggleWorks celebrated its opening, took three years.  LaBelle’s concept crossed the governor’s desk in 2004, and he approved it and granted $3 million for the project that same year.  Meanwhile, Boscov’s cohort ran a capital campaign to raise additional funds and LaBelle met with “anybody that would meet with me” to ask them: what does Reading need from an arts campus?  It turned out that people from over 500 organizations wanted to meet with her.  Above all, as GoggleWorks’s soon-to-be founding director, LaBelle wanted to fill in the gaps and provide what the city’s arts organizations needed, “but not be competitive with what was already there.”

Why Art?

Photo: Sean Talbot

But what does all this mean for the community? Why does an arts center bode good things for Reading?

When Barbara Thun describes changes the GoggleWorks art center has made in Reading, she talks about the parents of Berks Ballet Academy students.  Many of the students lived outside the city and their families weren’t used to driving downtown.  At first, when Berks Ballet moved into the GoggleWorks, parents picking up their kids would idle their cars as close to the door as possible, wait for the young ballerinas to hop in, and whisk them away.  As suburban parents grew more and more comfortable with the GoggleWorks and Reading, this changed.  Barbara Thun would see kids with dance gear sitting outside, laughing and playing while waiting for their parents.

More foot traffic into and around the GoggleWorks means more people on Reading’s streets and that, says Thun, “equals less crime.”  The GoggleWorks’s large parking lot casts light on the surrounding sidewalks and helps make the city safer at night.

More people crossing into downtown Reading means the city is now part of a bigger relationship.  Ideas, cultures, and talents that had stayed isolated as suburban, rural, and urban people kept their distance from each other can now mingle, and that feels safer and more comfortable each time it happens.

Not only does a site for the arts make art experiential, it means that artists are seen as essential to the community—risk-takers and beautifiers who will care for the community’s good– instead of being thrust to its outskirts.  For a long time, many Berks County artists felt alienated from their community. GoggleWorks artist and board member Suzanne Fellows, creator of a blogging paper doll named Eudora Clutey,  has lived in the area for 27 years.  She told me, “I felt like a total outsider until I found this place… Now that I’m at the GoggleWorks, I don’t want to leave.”

There must be something about the process of making art that is hopeful, too. To peer into artists’ studios is to see that beauty and wonder emerge through slow, sometimes mysterious and labored accretion. Watching ordinary people discipline themselves to bring forth artifacts is indicative is good evidence of a city still “in progress.”


Creating a Place like the GoggleWorks

What could brand new or concept-stage community arts centers learn from the GoggleWorks?  What attitudes and plans make the GoggleWorks function well in downtown Reading?  Here’s what the GoggleWorks artists, staff, and founding director think.

1. The community has to want it.

It can’t be one person’s brainchild or something only artists want.  The community needs to grab onto the idea, help to make it happen, and be aware that the art center is there.  You “can’t just put art there and hope people will see it,” says Kristin Kramer, GoggleWorks’s Director of Marketing and Development. From the get-go, the GoggleWorks designated a “special events committee” of people who knew Reading well and could organize events designed for neighborhood appeal.

2. The community has to feel like it’s theirs.

Providing scholarships so that everyone can come is essential, and so is refusing to have a territorial attitude toward the arts center.

3. Artists have to feel like it’s theirs.

Many GoggleWorks artists serve as board members, and all of the third-floor artists gather for Friday lunches, which have resulted in new ideas for exhibits.

4. People need to feel safe.

Keeping the GoggleWorks well-lit and ensuring plenty of foot-traffic has made even those who are cautious about Reading feel at ease here.

5. Other organizations can contribute.

Renting two floors to “arts partners,” arts-oriented companies and non-profits encourages cooperation, a central hub for the arts, and even a solution to economic challenges non-profits and small organizations face.

6. Artists can volunteer their time.

The GoggleWorks requires artists to contribute six hours per month of volunteer time, which keeps rent low and allows the GoggleWorks offer even more to the community.

7. Variety helps.

The GoggleWorks houses a theater that shows independent films and facilities for glassblowing, photography, woodworking, ceramics,  jewelry-making, and more. Variety draws a greater range of artists, lets artists learn from each other, and invites community members with a broad range of interests to take classes and learn new skills.

The Bearable Lightness of Letting Go

Undeterred by the cold and rainy weather, they came. Car after car, every passenger door flung open, each woman leaping out to scan the tables, hawk-eyed, grasping the best pillow or wine glass or ceramic on the table, throwing cash at us while diving back into the car and speeding on to the next driveway full of hopeful clutter. It was madness. It was bizarre. It was actually quite admirable. It was a yard sale.

I’ve known before that people “did yard sales.” My husband is one of them. But this level of commitment to finding the best of one man’s junk was something I’d never conceived. These people were professionals. Who says the sale begins at 8 a.m.? The sixty-something retirees know otherwise. The first mad rush started at 7:15 and ended thirty minutes later.

The morning continued with the less-vulturous hopefuls at 9 a.m. The folks who saw the roadside signs and turned in to take a look. The neighbors who came by to say hello. At 10:00, a more relaxed post-farmers-market crowd arrived, those who valued the pillows on their beds more than the best pillow on the table. I envied them. There was a college grad visiting town who had left her jacket in D.C. and picked up a fifty cent sweater for the chilly weekend at her old alma mater. There was a last-minute rush of women who pored through what was left while big, fat raindrops started to fall. We stuffed the remainder in boxes while they filled their arms at a reduced price, gleefully shouting, “This is the twenty-five-cent yard sale!” If only they knew I would have given it all to them for free at that point, if they’d simply take it, just take it away.

I had dreaded this sale all week. At 7 o’clock the morning of, I had peered out the window to a foreboding Saturday sky and three tables skillfully set in the front yard: bakeware, picnic basket, kitchen timer, cheap china angel. Apple peeler. Microwave. Clothes. This is not how I wanted to clear out the clutter of a very lived-in home. If I had it my way, it would all be in the hatch of the Honda Fit. I’d drop it at Goodwill and be back in the driveway with a fresh cup of Starbucks joe thirty minutes later, lickety-split.

But as it turned out, I loved it. I loved the yard sale. I loved every last rain-soaked minute.

It was not least for the characters. There was the man looking for antique furniture, unwilling to hear “We don’t have any for sale” and insisting we must. Did he actually want us to produce our own furniture for him to buy? He also wanted to know about guns. “You got some?” We did not go into the legality of selling firearms at yard sales. There was the friendly mountain couple who loved our daughter and chatted happily with her, though I couldn’t understand a word they said. And the moody teenagers who made off with armloads of 50-cent shirts and skirts, looking back over their shoulders as if we’d change our minds and charge them with thievery. Most satisfying was the woman renovating a new kitchen who needed a microwave for a mere two months. My old college dinosaur of a heating device? The perfect solution. She got a deal, and we had one less thing to load onto a moving truck.

What is it that drives people to drive hither and yon, searching out treasure amidst piles of someone else’s history? What is it that is so mutually happy about finding a steal on one end, and ridding the house of unnecessities on the other? Whatever it is, there was something shared and joyous that morning. Maybe it just so happened that only particularly nice (or interesting or funny) people came by. Or maybe it was the sheer community of it. Whatever it was, interacting with these folks was downright fun, and I say that from the depths of my introverted being.

My mother recently came to help me pack up a closet full of forgotten belongings. We tossed and recycled more than we boxed up for our impending move. The purge felt thoroughly good. This is the other side to that part of me that loves the sentimental home item. I am no packrat. In the back of the closet, I came across college-era letters signed in names I don’t recall. I may appreciate the meaningful family heirloom, but if I can’t picture the face of the friend who wrote me that letter back in college? In the trash bag it goes. I feel ten times lighter.

Still, after carefully culling the clothes I wear most days out of the clothes I’ll never wear again, I found it difficult at the yard sale not to explain the provenance of every wardrobe item to the teenagers, as they made off in gleeful banditry. They did get good deals, if I do say so myself. But they did not need to hear about the dress I wore on a memorable Charlottesville date with my husband five years ago, or the skirt I bought when I first moved to Chapel Hill. They needed to possess their new-found treasures, unweighted by story, as slates blank enough to be written with the tales of their own days . . . or else pass them on to the nearest friend or yard sale or trash can if they didn’t fit, after all.

Meaningful as these things are to me, it felt good to let them go. It feels good to let go and be who I am at this moment, moving on, encumbered only by the weight of bearable memories – and those, too, grow less and lighter, over time. The things the memories are attached to may stay, or they may not. Some I want to stick around more than others. And at this moment, watching people walking away from our yard with our old electronics in their arms and smiles on their faces, I think, “Our belongings could all go up in smoke.” I’d still be me.

Cleaning out the closet with my mom, I came across diaries that, in their time, had been very full of who I was. But now I flipped their pages, and I barely recognized myself. Or, more accurately, I recognized that I am still the best and most important of those old elements of myself. But the worst can go, and some of the memories, too. The journals go with them. I move forward from here. I feel very light, indeed.

Mid-morning, a white-haired lady appeared, tiny and casual in her loose jean skirt and baggy white blouse, careful and deliberate in her browsing. I understood her mountain-talk no better than I had the couple who jabbered with my daughter, but she wasn’t there to chat, anyway. She thumbed through the last of the clothes, all the while coming back to a peach-colored skirt, an almost-sheer number embroidered with silvery beads. I thought, for a few moments, that this was a gift, for a granddaughter, for a great-niece, perhaps. I had bought it during an unairconditioned Asheville summer years ago, haunting the cool library and movie theater as much as possible, and sweltering on miserably-hot sidewalks in between. That paper-thin skirt was my salvation. At the yard sale, the elderly lady held it up to her own waist, and suddenly I saw the new life this skirt was about to have. It was a beautiful vision: a bunchy old slip hanging beneath the hem while she watered the potted plants on her tumble-down deck.

But perhaps that is far too much to say about what is, really, just a piece of cloth. It’s the woman who mattered. I was happy to let her take the skirt, and the teens the rest of the clothes, and leave the memories behind with me. Even some of those will fade. Some already have. Some I’ve deliberately tossed. In the purging of my things, I found a surprisingly big space in some corner – or perhaps the very center – of my soul where people themselves seem to fit quite well. Less of this stuff, and less, even, of me. I watched, with some trepidation and a lot of peace, as the old woman climbed carefully into her enormous sedan and drove slowly away.

Facebook Friends Without Benefits (broken heart) and Other Newsfeeds

You have a secret. You are a masochist. You were feeling down on yourself and so you checked the Facebook profiles of the last three people you have been involved with.

Kendra Robinson wrote on Nick Patterson’s wall.

Sure, no big deal, right? But, then why is Kendra’s profile picture of her and Nick? And, if you scroll down further, why did Nick post a picture of the two of them when he has never posted any of the pictures he has taken with you?

Poster of a kitten knocking over a glass of milk: FML.

Now, all of the typical things you used to enjoy bring little pleasure. You don’t want to poke anyone and you haven’t been able to “like” anything for weeks. You’ve taken Vitamin D. Nothing helps.

You should have known: the rule of thumb for photo posting and tagging is, generally: (two words) pretty clear. The hurt is indescribable, but the term for someone who carefully manages the contents of his or her profile page like it’s a promotional site is a “Po-Sé”, or, Post selectivist. You should have guarded your heart like Mr. Po-Sé guards his wall.

Your Status Update: “Dreams don’t come true.”

Darren Feldman: Hey! Haven’t talked to you since grad. Just wanted to say that mine did! Got a job in Atlanta and just married the woman of my dreams!

Brett Chan-Man: Hey, is everything ok?
Saw that you recently took a “which lonely island character are you” quiz. Who’d you get?

Karin Tanner-Feldman: Would have to agree with Darren! Love you babe!

Somehow, you used to be able to get away with using Facebook as an emotional outlet; by putting your rambling tidbits of melancholia in quotation it seemed plausible that you were just quoting Sylvia Plath. But then, Facebook changed. What’s on your mind? Facebook began to prompt.

And now, every poem, song, video and bulletin you share is, however minutely, a reflection of your state of emotion and your state of consciousness; it is a reflection of you and a reflection on you. You are what you post. And, by extension, it’s easy to feel that you are, only if you post.

But, you haven’t been able to come up with an interesting or clever status update for hours. And, everyone knows that a successful status update lies not in the amount of information divulged, but in the number of “likes” it receives. That’s why nobody posts about the boring or unappealing things that happen in their life.

Tamara West: Ugh. Second urinary tract infection in the last two days! :/

Cora Kitchen: hang in there, hun!

Janice Wilson: have you tried Canesten? Lacey Wilson had an infection last month and it worked for her. They must be going around! Praying for you.

Sometimes, you wish you were ignorant, or perhaps just blissfully unaware, of the subtle and not-so-subtle indicators of status exhibited in the social network. Now that you’ve been exposed, your awareness feels like a burden: there’s the terrible feeling you get when you see someone else’s life and feel embarrassed about your inferiority, and the terrible feeling you get when you see someone else’s life and feel embarrassed for their inferiority. Which is worse? The latter, as your initial embarrassment on behalf of another is then compounded by feelings of guilt and shame over your arrogant feelings of embarrassment on behalf of another. Pity is the opposite of compassion.

Aaron Katz: Check out this article. How is it that everyone in America, except for me, and a few select others, is stupid, ignorant and unbelievably intolerant??!

Dan Markham: I just read the same article and had the exact same thought.

Lara Chisholm: Ugh. So violently angry about the rampant, fanatical hate speech in this country.

Jennifer Rothschild: I am always shocked at how ignorant people can be. I guess it just goes to show you that small minds think alike.

Dan Markham: I couldn’t agree more.

Then again, this is your network and these are your friends. Right? Aren’t they? Are they?

Take the REAL friendship quiz to find out!

1. You would feel comfortable dropping by (insert friend’s name) place if you were in the neighborhood. i.e. Writing an annual, “happy birthday” note on their wall.

Yes No

2. (Insert friend’s name) is someone who is there for you when you need them. i.e. Available on chat.

Yes No

3. (Insert friend’s name) is someone who understands that reciprocation is necessary in a relationship. They not only invite you to brunch, they Poke back.

Yes No

Your results:

1. Maybe?
I mean, you watch your home page more than you watch the news… so, you are up-to-date on what your friends are up to—even the ones you haven’t actually sighted or spoken to in years. But, you don’t necessarily comment on or like their posts, as that would be weird or creepy.

2. No.
You and Jacqueline Wilson are not actually friends. You are what the world long ago, and Facebook only recently has created an appropriate sub-category for, called, “acquaintances.”

3. No.
You don’t have 1330 friends. 10? Again, Maybe?

The truth has set you free from accepting friend requests from your friends’ moms, but it still hurts. Weary of the façade of interaction and the inexplicable pressure to maintain appearances, you begin to wonder if your life would be better if you just deactivated yourself. But it would be an inconvenience; you don’t know anyone’s phone number or mailing address. And what about your family? How would they cope? How would they know where you were without a Places update?

Joe Crossman decided not to head to the 2nd Street Bridge and is @Second Cup. He’s sitting in the third chair from the right of the doorway on the first floor. He’s wearing a blue shirt with a small, embroidered insignia on the left breast pocket and sipping coffee from a non-biodegradable off-white cup. Ouch! (He forgot to get a thermo sleeve.)

To remove your self from Facebook would be to commit the unthinkable: social suicide. You don’t want to deactivate yourself forever, you just want to go Invisible for awhile – so that you might still receive notification of—and read all—the nice posthumous things people might say about you when/if someone notices you’re gone; but, unfortunately, that feature is only available on Gchat.

In the only act of self-destruction, that you realistically feel destructive enough to carry out, you remove your profile pic. You don’t want to try or to be or to try-to-be anything. You don’t want to be perceived as something that you’re not, or anything that you are.

As you peruse your photos, contemplating the removal of all albums, you can’t help but feel a certain sense of nostalgia for the olden days. Those days when Facebook albums had caché… the days when you had a reason and a purpose: to dress up, take pictures, and post your photos by the next afternoon. Remember?

What happened? When did everything change? Why did everything change?

There are numerous reasons, but, according to your timeline, everything took a turn for the nostalgic after that song “Please Remember Me” by Tim McGraw was shared on your newsfeed. No, wait, wrong year… It’s the advent of the mobile upload that’s to blame.

Instagrammer: Insert Instagram and …voila!

Everyone likes this.

Purportedly to allow for greater sharing, in actuality, the mobile upload resulted in the breakdown of traditional sharing modalities. When everyone: instagrammers, foodies and partyers, are uploading immediately, instantaneously and spontaneously, your album of 60 photos, complete with memorable and witty captions, looks like you actually care about your Facebook account. It says: I made an effort. And that’s not cool.

Foodie: Insert picture of food on a plate and a description of ingredients.

Fan Friend: Yum!

Friendly one-upper: Is that today’s Times?

Philistine: … are those brown things mushrooms?

Foodie: No. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy.

Friendly one-upper: Sweet, man. Couldn’t tell. Quality of the pic isn’t as good as the shots I’m used to on my 7D.

Foodie: Let’s do lunch Friday and we can discuss aperture settings and Aristotelian ethics over chicken rosemary Salmon Rushdie curry salad sprinkled with mini-bake-oven roasted pine nuts.

What’s cool is mobile uploading. Oh. Hey. Just happened to have my phone out. Took a snapshot. No big deal. Here it is. Check it. It’s instantly gratifying in a casual, I’m-only-disinterestedly-interested kind of way. It’s like when you pretend that you are interested in a poster in a store window so that you can unabashedly gaze at your own reflection in passing.

The Partier: Insert picture of girl wearing a bustier and holding a red plastic cup

Friend Partier: Ridiculouuusss.

Partier: average Tuesday night: aka totalll sh** show.

Partier: apparently, I threw my cup on the floor, and laughed like a hysterical hyena. #becausethatswhatyoudowhenyourlifeisaridiculousrealitytvshow.

Partier: I don’t even remember taking this pic I was so outrageously out of crazy-trashy-fantastically-sexy-hand. Let’s keep talking about how ridiculous I am.

The reality is that Facebook is less like a network of friends and more like a neighborhood watch. Best-case scenario: everyone is watching you; worst-case scenario: everyone is watching you. But, the most-likely scenario is that no one is watching you as closely as you are watching yourself.

In your efforts to “sell yourself” to others, you have deluded and diluted yourself; you have come to believe that you are, or should be, a finished product. Why are you trying so hard? Who are you hiding your celebrity birthday quiz from, anyway?

Kendra Robinson: Be who you are meant to be, even if it means dressing up as a sexy-nymph-princess-child-witch-cop-bo-peep-school-girl-seductress-she-devil on days other than Halloween. Am I right? Truth. Love!

Post. Comment. Share. Everything. All The Time. Even incomplete sentences. Like that. Like this. Like everything.

Like the ad on the right hand side of your home page that depicts a baby the size of a dinky car wearing a furry blue hat and lying in the palm of a hand with the tagline: “be a social worker in NY”, one’s timeline here on this networking planet doesn’t make sense: it’s hectic, barely comprehensible, arguably user-unfriendly but ultimately, inevitably, change is imposed when the Programmer Almighty sees fit.
Then again, maybe it’s not meant to be understood—just enjoyed—in the moment—for what it is: (absurd).

I don’t know…. Maybe it’s not You. But it can’t be just me…

photo by:

Savannah: City In Flux

The lens centers upon a row of boarded up buildings, with tattered siding and leaning roofs. Along the edges of the image, there is a crumbling sidewalk strewn with derelict characters. At night, the streets in this neighborhood shine bright with globes installed by the city.  Behind closed doors, the community rages: shouts of anger burst through a cracked window, a woman calls for help, two kids light up in hopes of drowning reality. Young parents long to see their children graduate high school, to make ends meet on two or three jobs, to find a way to feed each little one. Several middle-aged residents aim to take pride in some small way, perhaps a backyard garden, or a carefully-lit fire blazing in a papered room that is encased behind barred windows. The juxtaposition of brokenness and a grappling towards hope is unmistakable.

Cut and scene. The camera shifts to a different perspective a mere fifteen years down the road. Kids pummel down the street on tricycles, a neighborhood baker greets passersby with a wave and warm smile, boys ready to play basketball lace up beside a flower-crowned bed and get ready for some three-on-three. The aroma of fresh food wafts from building-tops and residents rouse themselves for a bright and early farmer’s market prize as Saturday morning begins to rear its head.

Photo by Elisa Jara.

Recently immersed in a design school project tied to issues of urban revitalization and community change in one of Savannah’s most illustrious neighborhoods, I have found myself longing deeply to bring hopefulness and restoration to my current home yet struggling for answers. As a newcomer to the city, I have been thrown into a melting pot of southern charm, lingering racism, and deep-set hopes and dreams. I came to Savannah from further north with ideas about the things that make a place successful, and more personally the things that make a place enjoyable.

When friends from afar ask me about my experiences, admittedly I often refer to Savannah as a mixed bag. It has so much character: incredible historic architecture and streetscapes, unique and well-seasoned food offerings, and families with generations of rooted traditions. The city also boasts a thriving art and design school that churns out some of the United States’ most vocationally equipped creatives. Simultaneously, though, Savannah has a pungent underbelly that anyone who has spent more than a few weeks in its heart will recall. Well-known for its prevalent crime and racial segregation, Savannah is a city still in the throes of finding its voice.

On the surface Savannah glitters with the charming warmth of the Old South. Known as one of the first planned cities, Savannah developed around several central city squares and small grassy parks. Once populated with horse-drawn carriages, its wide streets and grassy roundabouts facilitated a ready flow of traffic to and from its bustling waterfront corridor. Today, many people still stroll the downtown area’s wide sidewalks well into the night, often with pets or kids in tow. These patrons, many of whom are tourists, frequent the local bars and restaurants for a taste of southern flair and laid back conversation. Paula Deen has set up shop near the old city market, offering a buffet of delicious sweet and sultry regional cuisine to those willing to come early enough to reserve a seat. Around the corner, the Savannah Bee Company sells everything from honeycomb to honey-scented lotions and offers free samples of many of its honey flavors. Yet another shop breathes the air of French culture to Savannah’s visitors, boasting a well-curated collection of jewelry, soaps and scents, books, tasty treats, and vintage furnishings. Such spots make Savannah feel a bit like an eighteenth century port town in which onlookers are transported into a slower way of doing things and where the most important item on the agenda is the dinner menu.

Further from the heart of downtown, Savannah begins to feel more like a Flannery O’Connor novel. O’Connor, notably, grew up in Savannah, so this musing should come as no surprise. Here, the streets are peppered with wandering jobless men and the occasional local gem, such as Back in the Day Bakery. A brief visit to one of Savannah’s Chu’s Market locations will offer a colorful glimpse of local culture, a beat on teen drug and gang activity, and a close-up of the tightly-knit community bonds of those born and raised in its many homes. As an outsider entering into these parts of town, one will probably feel both discouraged by the marks of extreme poverty and surprised by the depth of local character. Crumbling homes are brought to life through carefully-manicured lawns and colorful accents. Groups of elderly men mill around outside local car repair shops and abandoned grocery stores, carrying with them rich stories of community lifeblood, at times pumped rich and at others parched. Teens wander the streets in the late afternoon, some looking for a few bucks through a quick break-in while their peers are busy seeking out friends to accompany them to the park.

I’ve never met a people as courageous and determined as those who live at the crux of these perimeter communities. One, a woodworker, situated his shop in a neighborhood with kids and teens in desperate need of after-school alternatives to crime and drugs in order to serve as a catalyst for change. Another, a local printmaker and professor, opened a Tex Mex-inspired coffee shop housing locally-made furnishings and intriguing art pieces in an area of town desperately in need of more mixed-use development. Yet one more, a local music teacher, regularly gathers up the trash that populates her block, plants flowers along an ill-repaired crackling city sidewalk, and encourages the city to get more involved in her neighborhood.

As I think on Savannah’s future and my own as an urban resident, I am both moved and inspired by those who have chosen to live in the gap as agents of change rather than shirkers of responsibility who escape for an easier, more comfortable way of life. Dwelling in the clutch of the renowned “Garden of Good and Evil,” I have begun to understand, perhaps more deeply than ever, that we always live in the flux between two extremes: brokenness, and great, vast beauty. At times, the immense pain of a community may leave us feeling paralyzed, unable to discern how to help it move forward. But change is never easy, and a place full-dose is rarely what we make of it at first glean. I believe that somehow, in communities like Savannah, we must hold in hand the two extremes. We must be both passionate repairers of the broken walls and patient investors who recognize that a full-spectrum revival probably will not happen in our lifetimes. To reference Jane Jacobs, we must be willing to become the seeds of our cities’ regenerations, those seeds that bring “energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside [ourselves].” And like Jacobs, we must be content to make our little mark and let the work of future generations extend our efforts into new domains.

Detroit: The Resilient City

Detroit is not the easiest place to live but that’s part of its charm. It asks a lot of you at times, but it is unlike any city I have encountered in the freedom it offers, the deep community it necessitates, and the creative responses it provokes.

I moved to Detroit a year ago to start graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art and quickly began to feel like it was a place I was supposed to live for a long time. I think you truly get to know a place as you get to know its people, and I was lucky to meet a phenomenal community of artists and musicians soon after moving here. My love for this place rises directly out of my relationships with my friends. They are the ones who have shown me this city, and it is through being near their love for it that I have come to love it as well.

Over the past year, I have come to appreciate the strange expansiveness and unexpected beauty of Detroit’s landscape. Being one of the only cars on a wide street often leaves me feeling quietly exposed yet defiantly independent as I move about the city. There is something strangely peaceful yet empowering about coming to a traffic light that is no longer working. And although it is sad at times to be surrounded by physical manifestations of decay on a daily basis, it is also inspiring to see waist-high grasses and wildflowers reclaiming once occupied buildings that are no longer needed. Seeing the wildflowers change every few weeks this summer has kept me primed to the constant cycles of life and death happening around us and helped me appreciate the opportunities for new growth that accompany loss.

I have also been baffled by the intimacy and strength of community that exists in Detroit. Community is strong here out of necessity. When you can’t ride your bike home alone at night, you have to leave with a friend. When you live in one of a few homes occupied on a block, you have to really get to know your neighbors and look out for each other. People are also incredibly supportive of each others’ artistic and entrepreneurial work because cooperation is essential for building a critical mass of support in a city this size. The small scale of the arts community here also makes it likely that you’ve had the opportunity to really get to know people working in similar ways…and when you really get to know people, it’s hard not to want to support them.

I have been inspired by the fierce ingenuity and resourcefulness of Detroiters as they creatively respond to specific problems in their neighborhoods and communities. From farmers to artists, builders to social entrepreneurs, residents are responding to local needs with an urgency that often leads them to work collaboratively across disciplines. As an artist, I feel deeply grateful to have the opportunity to come alongside and work with people who are experimenting with new alternatives and unexpected, creative approaches for how to solve local problems and grow as a city.

Over the past year, living in Detroit has taught me deep things about how failure gives rise to freedom and need provokes creativity. With no local coffeehouse to write in, you write in bars. With little functioning public transportation, you ride bikes with your friends. With not one chain grocery store in the city limits, you plant a garden and grow your own food. I’ve also simply had a lot of lot of fun getting to know some of the most creative, passionate people I have ever met. Detroit is complex city with many deep problems, but it is also a resilient city that has offered me the freedom to make new things that are actually needed with people I really care about.

Night In At The Movies

Early this year, some friends from church approached me about organizing a monthly film night. They had just finished remodeling their single-family home in Brooklyn, and they were feeling generous towards their neighbors, and maybe a little thankful to God for the good fortune of a beautiful new home. So, armed with a video projector, fresh popcorn, and an unpainted sheetrock wall, we set about creating a little living room cinema.

Initially, I wondered what the purpose of such a “movie night” would be. We live in New York City and can attend any number of awesome film and culture events – so why bother? What hooked me was the chance to see people with whom I always intend to socialize but never actually do. I see these people in church every week, but our lives only rarely connect beyond that pew (or folding chair in a lunchroom, as is the case at my church).

And even though I live in New York, I don’t like paying New York prices and dealing with New York crowds. Movie theaters on a Friday night can be such a source of tension. Did you remember to buy tickets ahead of time online? Did you fill your pockets with affordable snacks from the bodega? If not, you’ll be paying twenty-five cents per kernel at the concession stand and can end up seeing a Hollywood action sequel when your quirky indie pick is sold out.

Maybe a movie in a friend’s living room wouldn’t be so bad after all.

There is also the issue of my Netflix queue, which is filled with the films I actually want and the films I feel I should watch. There are dozens of titles to which I never get: those old foreign dramas I heard about in film school, the slow paced but worthwhile documentaries that will make me a better person. They hover down at the bottom of the queue.

I have had two Holocaust-themed documentaries on my shelf for six weeks, but what I really want on a boring weeknight is another mindless and entertaining episode of Mad Men. Good movies have become like salad – I know I should eat it, but is there any chocolate, instead? In the face of these weaknesses, my church’s Indie Movie Night always ensures some edifying viewing.

But watching good films isn’t all work either. Our Indie Movie Night has been a success, drawing different people each month and helping us get to know one another beyond small talk. So, if you are considering starting up your own, here are some guidelines:

Challenge. People want to engage more with their movies. Maybe they suffer through my picks because they’re free, and movie tickets in New York cost more than $10, but I get the feeling people value movies that get them thinking. We’ve watched a lot of documentaries for that reason; we can immediately begin discussing the topic at hand. Which brings me to the next point.

Talk. People want to talk about movies. In fact, some people are movie viewing experts with way more opinions than you’d expect. Because I choose the films, I am the one who gets the conversation going. But when we are sitting around with a group after watching a movie, it doesn’t take long for others to share their (often strong) points of view.

Most of us are media experts just because we consume enormous quantities of media. But most of us consume that media in isolation, with no one to share those thoughts with in person (though there are no shortage of places to voice your opinions online, of course). When conditions are right, the opinions overflow. Oddly, in church we feel like one body, but here we get to see the viewpoints that make us individuals.

I’m not just describing a difference in tastes for romances verses comedies; I’m talking about the moment you realize that a woman who has served coffee to you at church for ages is actually an expert on ocean acidification, and you never knew! We have so much to offer one another, but it requires getting to know each other – which brings me to my final revelation.

The right conditions (or, food and drink). Our hosts are big on popcorn, and not the kind that comes out of the microwave – real popcorn, with melted butter and salt. A weaker person than myself might be tempted to come along just for the snacks, and they would be satisfied. No one is doing any elaborate baking, piping, or pairing cheeses with preserves; it’s all simple, but there is plenty of it, and drinks, too. We stand around snacking and chatting for a half hour before the film. By the time the movie starts, our stomachs are full and we’ve left behind the busy week.

If you are looking for some film recommendations, you can email me at!

An Interview with Katie Herzig (Part 2)

This is the second in a three-part interview with singer/songwriter Katie Herzig. You can read part one here.

During all this you were still living in Colorado. What prompted you to move to Nashville?

I had taken trips out to Nashville to do some songwriting, and the band had recorded our last record there, so I had some history with the city and knew a handful of people. I had gotten to know some artists with whom I really connected. I think I wanted to be part of a community of other artists making art that I really respected. It had nothing to do with Colorado – I miss it a lot. But for someone who wants to make their living in music, Nashville provided a community and unique opportunities for collaboration in writing and touring, as well as access to the business. There are plenty of artists in Colorado who are doing their thing and doing a great job of it, but I had a great connection with what was going on in Nashville.

For a musician, community is a particular problem, because they need to play and record with other musicians to make it work. It sounds like you had a good base to be able to move out there and start life in a new city. How did you foster those relationships? How do musicians find each other in a city like Nashville?

Once you’re there, you realize that it’s not that hard to find others, since you’re in music venues and at shows and hanging out with other artists who know other people. At first, I went to so many shows, and I tried to meet a lot of people. I would look for music that I liked and try to meet those people, for no other reason than to be friends with them and hear how they do it. But the Internet also helps, because you can see who knows who in different networks. Performing also provided a way for other people to see what I could do, and that helped me meet a lot of people.

Was there a particular venue or a songwriters night or something where a lot of those people you’ve really gravitated towards all gathered?

Not necessarily. In Nashville, there’s a handful of great venues. When I first moved to town, I participated in “Eight off 8th”, an evening in which eight artists each play three songs at the Mercy Lounge. They’re free shows, so people just go hang out there too. There was one particularly “Eight off 8th” to which I can trace several opportunities and relationships, and that’s a part of being in a town where your primary audience is other musicians.

• You can hear songs from Apple Tree at the sampler on NoiseTrade, and download the entire album plus bonus tracks for free!.
• Find out more about Katie and get her earlier albums on her website.
• Katie is currently on tour! Check out her tour dates and locations.

It’s funny how life gives you little things you can look back on and see precise turning points.

It gives you hope, too. Anything can happen any day, depending on who you meet.

You had a new album, “Apple Tree,” come out this spring. If “Weightless” was a breakup album for your old band, where did the songs on “Apple Tree” come from?

In the aftermath of the band’s breakup, I discovered something new and fresh; so many of the songs on “Weightless” came right before everything changed, and a lot of the songs on “Apple Tree” came from after that. The production was symbolic – I didn’t hold it as close. I included other people as co-producers as well – Cason Cooley for five of the songs, Aaron Johnson for one, and I did the rest. It was hard to invite other people into the process for what I knew would be my next record, but as it progressed, I appreciated having help from someone else who cared about the record just as much as me, while I was still ultimately in charge of what was happening. It wasn’t as though I was giving anything up, but rather allowing people to add what I couldn’t.

Why did you decide to go that route this time?

I wanted to grow a bit. A friend recommended Cason – I knew who he was, but my friend was sure we’d work well together. So we met one night, and we decided to try and couple songs, and we did. I think the risk is that you create something you like and you actually decide to put it on a record.

Being in this town, I’ve developed an appreciation for the players, producers, and musicians that are really good, and there are some people making a living on just producing or being a session player. While my instincts are pretty good – I can usually come close to playing what I want to hear, because I’m drawn to fairly simple parts – I also want to let go a little and realize that others have a lot to offer. I also love supporting what they do. I think it was a healthy decision to have more involvement and interaction with other people.

Your music has a playful nature about it, so it seems to make sense you would enjoy playing with others in the studio as you record those songs. You talked a little bit about working with Cason. How did Cason and Aaron’s strengths as producers compliment what you were already doing in the studio?

I think Cason approaches production with a sensitivity to who he’s working with. He’s not overbearing, which is good, since I have a strong sense of what I like, but he’s great at being excited about a song and trying a lot of things. He has an incredible ear and builds a track based on a respect for not doing things just for the sake of doing them. We got along well, which removes some of the pressure – some of what’s hard in making a record is finishing. The initial excitement for me comes from getting ideas down, but then actually getting in the studio, making sure you have the best version, and editing and listening is difficult. You have to be patient and see something to the end. Cason was really, really helpful in that.

Aaron and I worked on the song “Hologram”. We had talked about doing something for years, because he’d produced a couple Newcomers Home tracks that never ended up on anything, and since then he’d worked with The Fray and become a successful producer. He came to one of my shows in New York, and afterward he said he really liked what I was doing, but missed how much louder I’d sung with the band.

I’d started softening up, probably because I recorded “Weightless” in my house and had to be quiet. After he made that comment, I went away and wrote “Hologram”, so I always wanted him to help produce that song, since it was a somewhat intentional effort to do that again. He has great pop sensibilities, and it’s written in that vein, so I thought he’d be a great one to work with.

It must be exhausting to come back to something much louder.

It’s funny – “Hologram” is the most exhausting song I’ve written. When I sing it live every night, I feel like I just ran sprints. It’s brutally honest in pointing out things you don’t usually talk about, and at the same time, I’m belting that stuff out.

Our interview with Katie Herzig will conclude next Friday.